Fight Over Organic Integrity Pits Corporate Agribusiness Lobbyists
Scorecard of Votes by Organic Policymakers on the NOSB Released
Stakeholders in the organic industry will descend on the small resort community of Stowe, Vermont next week in a ritual that has taken place for two decades. The focus will be on the semiannual meeting of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board. Sparks are expected to fly between corporate agribusiness, and their lobbyists, and the farmers and consumers who say they are fighting to maintain the true meaning of the organic label.
Spring 2015 Meeting in La Jolla, CA
The battle ground has heated up recently as The Cornucopia Institute recently made public that Miles McEvoy, the head of the USDA’s National Organic Program, is the subject of an ethics investigation by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General and its Agricultural Marketing Service. One of the leading public interest groups that monitor the organic industry, Cornucopia claims that Mr. McEvoy has failed to vigorously enforce organic regulations. Among these alleged failures are allowing “factory farms” to proliferate and illegally interfering with the decision-making process of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).
Cornucopia officials met with USDA investigators, twice, in Wisconsin and Virginia, and possess documentary evidence backing up their allegations of ethical improprieties. In addition, NOSB members, with firsthand knowledge of some of the purported violation of law, have been willing to testify. Despite this, on Tuesday the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service denied the existence of any ethics probe into Mr. McEvoy’s conduct.
The NOSB, designed by Congress to be a 15-member, multi-stakeholder panel, controls which synthetic materials can be used in organics. As mandated by law, the USDA Secretary must seek the NOSB’s advice and counsel on policies regarding the implementation of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.
“The board has been stacked with agribusiness executives, creating a body strikingly unlike the diverse panel Congress had envisioned to buffer organic policy from powerful Washington food industry lobbyists,” said Will Fantle, Codirector of the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute.
Cornucopia’s NOSB member voting scorecard clearly illustrates a divide between, on the one side, independent farmers, consumer representatives, and conservationists, and, on the other, those board members who predominately work directly or indirectly for corporate agribusinesses.
Cornucopia’s written comments
Plenty will be at stake at the Vermont meeting, with almost 200 votes scheduled, including new petitions for synthetics and non-organic materials in organics. The majority of the materials on the National List will be reviewed under the Sunset process, legally mandated every five years, to verify that the materials are safe for the environment, human health, and continue to be essential for organic production.
Cornucopia contends that the USDA has systematically undermined the NOSB’s authority to make these decisions and carry out their duties.
“As was well documented in our white paper, The Organic Watergate, the USDA has stacked the NOSB with corporate representatives rather than the independent voices Congress mandated,” added Fantle. “We discovered that the ‘independent scientists’ who were doing congressionally authorized Technical Reviews for this lay panel were also agribusiness executives and consultants, loaded with conflicts of interest. The situation has only gotten worse in the several years since the release of our report.”
Cornucopia has highlighted the fact that organic stakeholders, including NOSB members themselves, can no longer review and critique the qualifications or independence of the scientists the USDA contracts to produce their Technical Reviews.
Fantle stated, “The USDA has now made the identities of the authors secret. What other reputable scientific papers can anyone think of where the authors are anonymous?”
Two of the more controversial materials up for Sunset review before the NOSB at this meeting include copper, for use as a fungicide in growing produce, and conventional celery powder, used as a “natural” preservative in cured organic meats like hams and luncheon meat.
“Copper-based products have been used selectively by certified organic farmers and we support them remaining on the list,” said Dr. Linley Dixon, a plant pathologist and lead scientist at Cornucopia. “However, copper materials are currently being used routinely by industrial-scale ‘split’ conventional/organic operations, whose monoculture-style cropping systems violate the intent of the law.”
Copper is being applied by some operations every 7 to 12 days, so much so that, sometimes after just a few years the farm ground must be abandoned from organic production due to build-up in the soil. “That does not meet the legal environmental stewardship requirements to be considered organic,” Dixon added. “We believe restrictions must be placed on the use of copper in organics. Furthermore, diversity requirements, which would mitigate the need for routine copper sprays, should be enforced.”
Conventional celery powder might seem an innocuous food ingredient, and certified organic products are allowed to have up to 5% conventional ingredients if they are unavailable in organic form. However, high levels of synthetic nitrogen have to be applied on conventional celery to amp-up the nitrate levels so that celery powder will perform as a preservative, like synthetic nitrates. This practice contributes to groundwater contamination and eutrophication of waterways from highly soluble synthetic nitrogen fertilizers.
Nitrates are used to help preserve processed meats to limit risk of listeria and other pathogenic contaminants.
“Unfortunately, whether the nitrates come from synthetic sources or celery powder, they still pose risks to human health. Nitrates in meat products convert to nitrites, which can convert to carcinogenic nitrosamines through human digestion,” stated Dr. Jerome Rigot, another Cornucopia staff researcher.
The nonprofit, public interest group recommends an accelerated research project to search for acceptable alternatives, enabling the removal of conventional celery powder from the National List of approved substances in organics.
tours a hydroponic farm
Image Source: USDA
Another prominent issue that will be hotly contested at the NOSB meeting is hydroponics. Many certified organic farmers are upset that the NOP overruled the NOSB and is allowing soil-less food production bearing the organic seal.
The Cornucopia Institute also released, for the benefit of the organic community, a comprehensive analysis and recap of all written comments submitted to the NOSB prior to the meeting. It summarizes the national sentiment of individual citizens, nonprofits, certifiers, trade/lobby groups, and corporate interests regarding the business before the board. Cornucopia’s own formal comments and recommendations are also available for public viewing on their website: www.cornucopia.org.
In addition to the recap of written comments, Cornucopia has prepared a synopsis of two webinar/conference calls that includes the participants’ names and affiliations and a summary of their statements. The two unprecedented web-based opportunities to submit oral testimony prior to the Fall NOSB meeting took place on October 13 and 20.
The webinars were designed to be an alternative to testifying in person, but in effect take away power from stakeholders traveling to Vermont from around the country. The webinars have been used as a justification for reducing individual public testimony time at the meetings down to a mere three minutes, also unprecedented in NOSB history.
Almost all of those testifying during the two webinars represented agribusiness interests.
In the past, when the workload dictated it, the USDA expanded the NOSB meetings from four days to five days and/or added a third meeting in a given calendar year. Even with the largest workload ever, that has not been the case this year.
“It seems that there is a concerted effort to reduce public participation at the meetings,” Cornucopia’s Fantle lamented.
“Actions by the NOP over the last couple of years have caused a slipping of organic integrity and a devaluing of the organic seal,” stated Dr. Barry Flamm. Dr. Flamm is uniquely qualified to assess the unilateral changes to the NOSB’s procedures. In addition to being a recent past chairman of the NOSB, Dr. Flamm also chaired its Policy and Procedure Subcommittee.
Cornucopia referred to the results of the updated NOSB member voting scorecard as “disheartening.”
Although some true heroes remain on the NOSB, like Colehour Bondera (100% voting record), a farmer representative from Hawaii, and Dr. Jennifer Taylor (83%), an academic representing consumer interests, many of the voting records now reflect support of the corporate lobby rather than alignment with the public interest groups involved in the organic movement and their policy recommendations.
All of the new board members, including Tom Chapman (Clif Bar), Ashley Swaffar (Vital Farms), and Lisa de Lima (MOM’s Markets), had identical voting records of 33%. At the last meeting, they were joined with the same voting scores by Zea Sonnabend (with the nation’s largest certifier, CCOF), Tracy Favre (a petroleum engineer by training and currently a manufacturer’s representative and organic inspector whose former employer performed consulting work for Dean Foods/Horizon — now WhiteWave), and the board chair, Dr. Jean Richardson, who holds one of the consumer seats.
The distinction of having the lowest performance, as rated on Cornucopia’s voting scorecard, of any member fully attending the last meeting, belongs to Carmela Beck (16%). She is a full-time employee of the giant, primarily conventional, Californian and Mexican berry producer Driscoll’s.
Although Ms. Beck was appointed to fill a seat that Congress set aside for someone who “owns or operates an organic farm,” her voting record stands in stark contrast with others in the farmer seats, especially Mr. Bondera’s 100% record.
The Cornucopia Institute is challenging the legality of Carmela Beck’s appointment, along with that of Ashley Swaffar, also a full-time employee of an agribusiness. Nothing in the résumés submitted to the USDA in support of their NOSB applications indicate that either Ms. Swaffar or Ms. Beck were responsible for operating farms. Cornucopia obtained the information through a Freedom of Information Act request to the USDA.
“The stark divide, as reflected by the voting records, between the independent, public interest representatives on the board and those with relationships with corporate agribusiness, is emblematic of the larger debate over the growth trajectory of the organic industry. The organic label is increasingly associated with giant factory farms, imports from countries such as China, and a sympathetic approach to reviewing and approving synthetic food ingredients,” Fantle stated.
NOTE: The Cornucopia Institute has stated that their analysis of synthetic ingredients and policy positions are viewed through the prism of The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA), the enabling legislation that gave the USDA the responsibility to oversee the organic industry protecting ethical participants and consumers.
In order to refute being called “purists” (used by agribusiness interests as a pejorative term), and accused of being radically out of step with the mainstream organic community, Cornucopia did an additional analysis comparing their positions, formally submitted in written comments to the NOSB, with that of other stakeholder groups in organics. Their findings included:
- Cornucopia’s positions, on issues contained in their scorecard, were 100% in concert with Beyond Pesticides, Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, Organic Consumers Association, Consumers Union, and others. Their policy was compatible with the National Organic Coalition’s on 90% of the votes analyzed.
- Cornucopia’s policy was also 100% compatible with organic businesses Nature’s Path, Ciranda and Amy’s. It was also parallel with the country’s largest member-owned cooperative grocer, PCC Natural Markets in Seattle, along with the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA) and the Infectious Disease Society of America.
- On the end of the spectrum Cornucopia, and the other NGOs they stand with, had 10% of their positions in common with leading organic agribusiness lobby group, The Organic Trade Association (OTA).
Visit their website to view Cornucopia’s full comparison between industry participants: https://www.cornucopia.org/nosb-voting-scorecard/